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Microsoft, Dell, ASUS and Sexism

by Charles Humble on Jun 14, 2012 |

During the Norwegian Developers Conference (NDC) last week Microsoft's regional subsidiary featured a group of dancing girls jumping around on stage to a Scooter-esque song with some rather inappropriate lyrics, including the line "I've got the skills to impress, I'm a computer genius, The words 'Micro' and 'Soft' don't apply to my penis", and references to programmers coding "fast" and "hard".

The song went on to name-check four speakers at the event, including female front-end developer Lea Verou with the line, "Lea Verou can make your dreams come true". Verou told InfoQ:

I found their mention of me weird and awkward at best, or even creepy. However, I don't think they actually meant for it to sound that way, or that my gender had much to do with it. I like to assume good intentions when I have no evidence of the contrary, so I think it was just a very bad coincidence, caused by sloppy work. Since sexist incidents don't frequently happen to me in the industry, I found it so ridiculous that it ended up being funny, in a WTF kind of way. Of course, if I encountered such things more often, I'd be pissed off instead of laughing.

Overall, I think the entire thing displayed profoundly bad taste. However, some people seem to be overreacting to certain parts of it, as usual.

She also made the point that

Norway is a very gender equal country ([one of the] best in the world I think regarding gender equality), so many things that seem "objectifying" to Americans are fine with Norwegian women. However, the dancers were not part of the solution either — It would've been much better if it included male dancers as well.

Opening keynote speaker Aral Balkan challenged organizers over the sexist content ahead of the performance, but the only result was to change the lyrics that flashed up on screen to read, "The words 'Micro' and 'Soft' don't apply to my penis (or vagina)". In a detailed (possibly not safe for work) blog post Balkan, suggests:

I don't think that they intentionally set out to perpetuate the male gaze or to insult women or to discourage women from our industry. They just didn't think about it.

Meg Natraj echoed the sentiment and expressed her dismay at the change of lyric on twitter.

It became, "We don't really THINK/care about women, but we have to put this in so that no one can complain that we excluded them".... Being marginalised as an afterthought hurts more than being forgotten. The latter is incompetence; the former is disregard.

InfoQ contacted Microsoft for a comment, and a spokesman told us

The Norwegian Developer's Conference included a skit that involved inappropriate and offensive elements and vulgar language. We apologize to our customers and our partners and are actively looking into the matter.

Microsoft has struggled for some time to shake of a reputation for sexism, particularly in the UK. Natalie Ayres worked at Microsoft for 15 years and was widely tipped to become UK managing director in 2006; according to UK broadsheet The Telegraph, her interview process was still under way when Gordon Frazer, general manager of Microsoft South Africa, was named instead. In 2006 the firm paid over 1 million pounds ($1.57 million) to buy her silence. From The Telegraph story:

"They [management] do not follow procedure enough and if your face doesn’t fit, you suffer. It’s a boys’ club. The only way to progress beyond a certain point is to become a male in female clothing," a source said.

The problem though isn't limited to one vendor. Sexism is endemic in our industry, a fact that becomes painfully obvious if you spend time at conferences. Dell booked well known misogynist Mads Christensen as a 'moderator' at an event in April, and hiring scantily-clad "booth babes" to show off gadgets at electronics conferences is still a depressingly common practice. Earlier this month ASUS offered this tweet about the woman featured in the photo, from their corporate twitter account. They have subsequently deleted it, but there are several other examples of them using woman to sell tech (one, two, three).

The Microsoft penis joke is old enough I remember it doing the rounds of my school playground in the 80’s, though to be fair we were all:
a) Male, and
b) About 12 years old.

It is slightly depressing to observe that we don’t appear to have moved on in the intervening 30 years; our industry is the poorer because of it.

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